Enduring the Test While Presenting the Best
By Terrence Richburg © 2009
I'm sure all musicians at one time or another have been just blazin' straight ahead at a pace they believe to be the top of their game, hitting every musical note and passage; and feeling real positive about themselves and their level of skill. They may even be riding a wave of ease with where they are in their musical career. Then all of a sudden [or so it would seem] something out of the blue happens that completely knocks them off their feet, catches them by surprise or leaves them many times in a state of confusion and dismay. Sometimes it's handling those unexpected encounters within the music industry that may be the problem--a shock to some, but dealing with a few folks may not always be the "love-fest" you'd hope for, even in the Christian or Gospel music world. But then it may just occur during a stressful situation on a gig. Nevertheless, it's not about what you should do if this ever happens. It's more about being prepared ahead of time for the "test" when it does--and it will -- happen.
Everyone deals with tests well after the formal seasons of structured classroom instruction, pop quizzes, mid-terms and finals are all over. However, the tests I'm talking about occur in real time, in real life while working in the real world of your very own craft. During my musical career I've been subjected to many tests--humbling situations that I've found not to be as much about evaluating what I think I know, but rather they're designed by God to teach me how to face something new and learn how to prepare for it. I hope to share more "interesting" episodes with you later, but for now I have a story of a test I believe many bass players have unfortunately experienced.
It was mid-way through the gig and the audience was "in love" with everything we played. The applause was thunderous and flattering, the solos were overflowing with creativity, the spirit was high and from all available proof it seemed God would bless us with a flawless performance once again. Then, it happened. Suddenly, in the middle of my solo I get this weird sensation in my left hand. My fingers start to tingle, then constrict, and now my hand begins to cramp like crazy. My fingers once blessed with the agility of a gazelle now stop working altogether and no matter how much my mouth or brain say move, they just won't respond. I think to myself, "Is my career over? Has God decided to remove His gift of music from me?" A strong answer spoken to my heart says, "Of course not!" So, what should I do in this situation? Well, this wasn't the only time this happened to me. I prayed then and realized that my muscles were fatigued from sustained use, and they're telling me this in the only way they know how. Of course, it's at the most inopportune time, ever. The secret is not to panic, just smile [if you can] and keep on playing at your best. How? I'm glad you asked. From being in a strange or labored position for so long your muscles and tendons in your wrist and fingers just need a little break to rest and increase blood flow--so give it to them. While playing you ask? Yes. Instrumental solos can be as creative as you want them to be, and you still have another hand to work with don't you? More than likely the audience won't even notice your dilemma. This is one miracle witnessed by many that will be seen as just another component of a wonderful musical experience, hopefully.
Playing bass, especially one with a wider neck, can at times present such challenges as this. As a remedy on the gig, you should try discreetly shaking out your hand to get the blood flowing and the muscles to loosen up. Then hold your hand in a more relaxed position at the middle region of the fret board to decrease some of the inherent stress at the point where the wrist bends. Next, to continue your solo choose motifs or chords by which you can simply lay your fingers on the strings and either use your right hand to create a rhythmic groove on a well-chosen note, or if you can depress a few strings within a short range of notes, build on the solo with some chords and harmony. You can also use your right hand to solo using a "tapping" technique made famous by Jazz guitarist, Stanley Jordan and premier bassist, Victor Wooten . [If you don't know what tapping is, check it out on-line.] Try these steps until the dexterity returns to your left hand. Or, at the completion of your solo, just simply "give the drummer some" and rest your hand while they continue to amaze the crowd with their God-given abilities for a while. Now, that's it for what to do on the gig. But to help keep this from happening in the first place, the following strategies should be applied:
1. Warm-up: Always warm-up before a gig to get the blood flowing and get your fingers, hands, wrists and arms reoriented to the positions they'll be in for the next few hours . Warming up can include some stretching and flexing as well as practicing scales, chords and arpeggios at the end, middle and top regions of the fret board. You should also practice any special techniques you'll be showcasing on the new songs you've prepared for the performance.
2. Stay Warm: Just like you would do for your bass, keep your wrists and hands comfortably warm or should I say at room temperature before playing . Drastic changes in temperature such as coming in from severe cold without your hands sufficiently warmed and then having to play immediately can possibly cause cramping. [NOTE: Always tune your bass when it's at room temperature, otherwise it will go sharp or flat when you begin playing (depending on whether it was cold or hot in the first place). The temperature of the truss rod and the wood will need to adapt to that of the current environment.]
3. No Surprises: Always practice the music you plan to play often and well in advance so that your hands and fingers will remember and know what to expect on the gig . They don't like surprises for which they're not prepared.
4. Expand Your Technique: Never settle for where you are as bass player . Continue to grow, check out what other players are doing and try out new techniques on the bass as a regular disciplined regiment of your practice time. In this you can theoretically prepare yourself for the unknown--being that in Jazz there's always an element of "the unknown" with your name written on it. It can either become a moment of unexpected success for you or a missed opportunity to shine, excel, and give glory to the Lord who chose you to possess these gifts with which to honor and praise Him.